Spelling rules

4 Replies

Heaps of books and internet sites will tell you that there are many spelling rules, and if you learn all the rules you will be able to spell.

For example:

Rule: “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”

This means that when you have two vowel letters together in a word, you say the name of the first letter for both letters.

This works for words like sundae, rain, been, eat, seize, people, pie, boat, toe, brooch, soul, cue, nuisance and vacuum.

It doesn’t work for words like baa, maestro, said, plait, bonsai, fault, caution, aunt, deaf, great, vein, feisty, feud, friend, skiing, does, phoenix, boil, food, good, blood, loud, cousin, youth, and I could go on with this list for a very long time.

Spelling rules don't work

Once you start trying to use spelling rules, you find that even “I before E except after C” doesn’t work all the time. Witness rein, veil, sieve, surveillance, protein, counterfeit, sheila, seize, apartheid, eiderdown, kaleidoscope, poltergeist, seismic, leisure and heifer.

C sounds like S before E, I and Y” is about the closest English spelling gets to a rule that works, but then you come across the words ocean, herbaceous, cetacean, curvaceous, crustacean, liquorice or licorice, cello and concerto.

A good rule is clear and works all the time. Under this definition, spelling rules aren’t rules at all, they’re more like guidelines, and often not very helpful ones.

Spelling rules are couched in complex language

The other problem with using “rules” to teach spelling is that the language of the rules themselves is too complicated for young children and those with language difficulties.

They tend to include jargon words like "vowel" and "syllable" and "stressed", and complex verbal reasoning using conjunctions like "before/after", "except" and "if…then" in complicated sentences.

Even I sometimes don't really understand what a spelling rule means. Consider the following: "for action words that end in ie, change the 'ie' to a 'y' before adding an 'ing'". Now consider some examples: tie-tying, lie-lying, die-dying. Which was more helpful, the rule or the examples?

Demonstrate spelling patterns instead

We might as well chuck away spelling rules and their jargon altogether, and get on with demonstrating spelling patterns in an orderly way, and letting the patterns speak for themselves.


4 responses to “Spelling rules”

  1. joanne says:

    Thanks for this post, Alison. I have watched quite a few of your videos that point out there is a (short) vowel sound before ck and others that mention that English words don’t end in an ‘i’ so I have adapted that and we play your bingo games also. However, I am actually really torn because even the programs that are on the recommended list from SPELD have rules such as the floss rule (even if we call it a pattern, it is really a rule), ck and k explicit lessons. I also found that many of my students just didn’t know which beginning k choice until I pointed out the pattern/rule that i, e or y usually comes after k in English words. Nessy also has loads of spelling rules videos of when to use tch or ch (for example) and this was also explained in a SOR short course I did. It was all new to me and actually helped me as an adult with spelling choices as I had never noticed. I definitely don’t do the “2 vowels go walking” or magic e idea as I use the terms “digraph” but I am still not sure how to cement good spelling choices into these little people.

    • alison says:

      Hi Joanne, thanks for this feedback, this is 2012 blog post, and I’d probably write it in a more nuanced way now. It is talking about the kind of spelling rules that are full of “if” and “except” and “but only” statements and metalanguage. There are heaps of them in spelling rule books and on the internet, they say things like “Verbs ending in –r: Double the r for words of more than one syllable when the stress does not fall on the first syllable, before adding -ing, -ed and some suffixes”. They make everyone’s eyes glaze over, even the kids who can understand such complex language, because they are a bit like trying to explain in long, complicated sentences how to dance the tango. They make absolutely no sense without examples, and actually the examples and the practice are when the learning starts. But I do say things like “ck goes at the end of ack, eck, ick, ock, uck words, but not ake, eek, ike, oke or uke words”, and “we usually write the sound /k/ with a letter k before the letters e, i and y”, which I guess could be construed as rules, even though I don’t use the “R-word”. I’ve had too many gotcha moments with kids with autism, when I told them a spelling rule and they immediately thought of words to which it didn’t apply. But the main thing I try to do is give kids lots of structured practice, and then opportunities to apply this knowledge, I’m sure you do too.

      • Brittany says:

        Hi Alison,

        I’m a huge fan of yours! Thank you for all the great work you are doing 😀 I have used so many of your resources and recommendations.

        I’m a year 1 teacher who has done the Sounds-Write training and realise the pitfalls of stating spelling ‘rules’. However, I’m now at a PLD school and quite a few of my students are making mistakes with alternative spellings of the same sound (e.g. ck/k/c). Other than doing SW lessons 7 and 8, I’m wondering if there is a resource that helps with generalisations such as the one you mentioned: “ck goes at the end of ack, eck, ick, ock, uck words, but not ake, eek, ike, oke or uke words”, and “we usually write the sound /k/ with a letter k before the letters e, i and y”

        I’ve heard these books mentioned: Lyne Stone Spelling for Life and Uncovering the Logic of English. Is there something you recommend?

        • alison says:

          Hi Brittany, thanks for the lovely feedback, much appreciated. We were actually talking about metalanguage and how to explain spelling patterns in our staff meeting today. I have the books you mention, but I prefer to use Sounds-Write type strategies that focus on doing rather than explaining/describing. Can you do some word sorts, and then eyeball the lists to see which kinds of words have C, which have K, and which have CK? Maybe ask kids to write silly sentences containing target words, then swap and read them aloud? The Sound Steps to Reading storybook has sound-loaded stories which can be used for sound searches, the start of the /k/ story goes like this:

          King Karl lived in Crickle-Rock Castle,
          on the crest of a hill in the Kingdom of Crickle.
          It looked out over Crickle Lake.
          You could see the Cliffs of Crickle on a clear day.

          King Karl wasn’t very kingly.
          He didn’t like people in crowds or singly.
          He kept to his castle far from town.
          He never, ever wore his crown.

          Sorry that’s all I can think of late on a Friday night. Hope it’s helpful. Alison

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